Seven years ago, Pippa Biddle blogged a post about her volunteer experience abroad. In it she recounted her difficulties speaking Spanish to HIV-positive children in the Dominican Republic and how locals in Tanzania spent all night rebuilding faulty buildings that she and her classmates had made.
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“Participating in humanitarian aid projects where you are not particularly helpful is not beneficial,” he wrote. “It is harmful.”
The post, that reached more than two million visits, impacted a movement of people who felt equally uneasy about the growing number of unskilled volunteers in orphanages, schools and hospitals around the world.
At the time, Biddle was 21 years old and knew little about the subject beyond his own experiences. “I thought I had invented the term ‘voluntourism’. I didn’t know it was a word that people used.” The response encouraged Biddle to research volunteer tourism and the ways it has harmed and continues to harm the people it aims to help, prompting him to write his book ‘Ours to Explore: Privilege, Power, and the Paradox of Voluntourism ‘(‘ What is ours to explore: Privilege, power and the paradox of voluntourism ‘).
Poverty as a tourist attraction
Before the pandemic, volunteer tourism was a growing industry. The annual number of participants from volunteering abroad was around 10 million. Voluntourists spent € 1.45 billion on their travels in 2019. While profiles and activities vary, volunteer tourism is largely made up of young, unskilled and generally white volunteers who pass short stays in vulnerable communities.
Critics say volunteer tourism transforms poverty into a tourist attraction, one that visitors want to see without meaningfully engaging in it. Volunteer tourists may inadvertently exacerbate the problems they seek to combat, taking jobs away from local residents, affecting the psychological development of children and reinforcing the degrading stereotypes on poor communities in developing countries.
Biddle devotes several chapters to studying how volunteering with children (one of the most popular activities on this type of trip) can be harmful to their well-being and development. For example, tourism associated with humanitarian activities has increased the demand for children in orphanages. Some childcare centers offer money to their parents to recruit them, which has caused the separation of families.
Many organizations do not evaluate volunteers, so children are exposed to dangerous situations in places with inadequate protection procedures. The constant turnover of volunteers can cause them attachment disorders and affect their psychological development.
The book exposes what happens when unskilled volunteers are faced with situations for which they are not trained, such as the case of a young medical volunteer who fainted during surgery.
Meeting the needs of volunteers, not communities
Biddle’s stories suggest that the industry is built with the goal of meeting the needs of volunteers, but not those of the communities. The problem is not simply that the volunteers are not trained for these activities, but that the business as a whole appears to be an extension of the colonial mindset and colonial structures of economic and political power.
Biddle says she doesn’t want to demonize the volunteers, but hopes to shed light on these issues. As he explains, the history of volunteer tourism has “too many cases” in which Westerners decide what aid consists of, while too many communities fight for their voices to be heard.
For those familiar with voluntary tourism or humanitarian aid, these arguments are not new, but Biddle seeks to generate a more accessible discussion for beginners.
Cross-cultural experiences can be more useful for volunteers and communities if they include training on colonialism, humanitarian aid and privilege, indicates the book. To this end, Biddle proposes possible solutions, such as certification systems for voluntary organizations and improvements in the laws for the protection of minors.
The author argues that, as a white woman who has made her own mistakes, it is not up to her to decide how to create more responsible volunteer projects: “The conversation should be led by the communities affected by this issue.”
However, according to Biddle, the voluntary tourism sector continues to function without systemic change. “Every year there are millions of people who think it is right to pay to be with vulnerable children, and then post images of them on the internet. This is not only considered acceptable, but courageous.”
Biddle hopes her experiences prevent people from making the same mistakes. “Don’t do like us but please learn from it.”
Translation of Julián Cnochaert